The soldiers arrive in the city of Tehran. There, they celebrate Christmas—making decorations, brewing eggnog, and even smoking the last of Oscar’s marijuana. Lieutenant Corson gets very sick again, but it’s not clear exactly why. Doc tries to care for Corson, but lacks the proper medical equipment. He claims that Corson is homesick—homesick for his literal home and for the war, too. The only cure for homesickness, Doc concludes, is time.
As usual, Doc practices something between medicine and witchcraft, but he also has a point: Corson is suffering from a sense of nostalgia for Jolly, and a general sense of uselessness. He’s supposedly the commander of the troops, but seems to wield almost no authority whatsoever.
One day, the narrator explains, the soldiers are arrested, “only minutes after the beheading.” It is a cold winter’s afternoon in Tehran, and the soldiers are carrying Corson through the streets so that he can get some fresh air. They notice a large rally down the street—military officers wearing their uniforms are standing before a massive crowd of people. As the people begin to cheer, a van drives through the crowd, very slowly. Doc seems to understand what’s happening, and he tells Berlin to watch closely. A police officer emerges from the van, leading behind him a young man. The officer leads the man to a stage, where a soldier busies himself looking for a razor. Having found the razor, the soldier shaves the young man’s head, much to Berlin’s confusion and disgust.
As the soldiers travel throughout the continents of Europe and Asia, they encounter other deserters who are punished far more harshly than an American deserter like Cacciato would be: Van, who’s sentenced to life beneath the ground, and here, the soldier who is to be executed. These episodes in the novel are important, because they remind us of the specific national themes at play—Cacciato’s decision to leave the American military (and perhaps the other soldiers’ decisions too) is based on his experience in a specifically American culture and society.
Berlin watches, unable to look away, as the young man’s head is pushed to a block. The young man’s face looks terrified. He stares at a fly, so intently that he seems not to notice when the “hooded axeman” steps forward. The narrator doesn’t describe the beheading of the man, but simply says, “it ended.” The crowd cheers, and music plays from loudspeakers.
As always, O’Brien jumps over the most gruesome parts of his novel, so there’s no actual description of the man losing his head. This mirrors the process of repression and trauma that O’Brien dramatizes through the soldiers’ experience in Vietnam.
After the beheading, the soldiers go to get drunk at a local bar. Stink, in contrast to the other soldiers, seems amused by the beheading, and seems certain that the boy was a murderer who deserved what he got. After drinking, the soldiers go off to look for dinner, but instead, the narrator repeats, “they were arrested.”
Stink has shown himself to be cold-hearted and even sociopathic before (as in the scene with the buffalo), but this doesn’t automatically prove him a less “moral” person than, say, Berlin—rather, it suggests that he’s coping with his experiences in Vietnam in a different, more violent way than are the other soldiers.
The soldiers blame their arrest, the narrator explains, on each other: Eddie blames Stink, Oscar blames Eddie, etc. Eddie makes the mistake of asking a local man if he knows where to find good clams for dinner. The local man turns out to be a police officer, who recognizes that the group of men isn’t from Tehran. Finding that they have no Afghan identification papers, he brings them in to the police station.
Here, it would seem, O’Brien is injecting a little reality back into the novel. After hundreds of pages in which the soldiers avoid every legal setback in their journeys through other countries, they’re finally forced to confront the basic illegality of what they’re doing.
At the police station, the soldiers are introduced to Sergeant Ulam—the officer who brought them in—and Captain Fahyi Rhallon, who will be interrogating the soldiers. Rhallon seems remarkably polite, and he asks to see the soldiers’ passports. Doc is polite in return, and explains that none of the soldiers have passports. Doc continues that he and his friends are touring soldiers. Rhallon seems to believe Doc, and adds that Doc should have explained this immediately. Rhallon orders sandwiches and tea for the soldiers, and they accept without hesitation. Rhallon notices Sarkin—still traveling with the soldiers, and clearly not a soldier. He asks Doc how it’s possible for soldiers to travel without passports. Without pausing at all, Doc insists that the United Nations’ Mutual Military Travel Pact of 1965 allows soldiers to travel across international lines without identification. Rhallon nods and says that he is foolish, and ignorant of this law—but it’s not clear if he’s being serious. Doc adds that Sarkin is under “temporary escort”—a service that’s also laid out in the U.N.’s laws. Rhallon nods and tells the soldiers that they can go. He even apologizes for his “unseemly error,” and offers to buy the soldiers drinks.
Just when it seemed that O’Brien/Berlin was being harshly realistic about the soldiers’ situation, there is another deus ex machina (literally, “god from the machine,” or an unlikely event that suddenly resolves the story’s problems). Doc is able to talk his way out of prison—a highly implausible turn of events that hinges on the Captain’s willingness to believe in a Geneva Code that’s clearly being made up on the spot. In all, the section is comical (as most of the sections involving Doc Peret are—he’s the closest thing in the novel to a comic relief character), but with an undercurrent of menace. We get the sense that Captain Rhallon doesn’t entirely trust the soldiers, even if he’s being polite to them. O’Brien also takes this opportunity to remind us that Sarkin is still a part of the group—like many of the characters in the novel, she’s present throughout the mission, but often goes many pages without appearing.
Captain Rhallon takes the soldiers to a bar that plays loud American music, and he orders beers for everyone. He asks Doc and Eddie to tell him about the war from which they’ve come. Doc replies that there’s nothing to tell—war is war. Captain Rhallon, smiling, disagrees, and points out that each soldier sees a different side of the war. Doc clarifies his position—the Vietnam War, he insists, is no different from any other American war, despite those who insist it’s a far cry from World War II.
In this important section, Rhallon and Doc give us some insight into the dynamics of the Vietnam War, as well as their own personalities. Doc takes a detached, historical view of the war—but he clearly wants to conflate Vietnam with WWII as an equally “just” war. On another level, however, his words imply that all war is essentially the same in its violence and horror.
Rhallon and Doc continue discussing the war in Vietnam. Doc insists that soldiers shouldn’t concern themselves with the purpose or goal of a war—a soldier’s business is to follow directions, and survive. Rhallon takes a more abstract view of war in general. He thinks a war must be judged by its principles—that is, a country’s reasons for going to battle. He argues that a soldier cannot fight a war properly—cannot focus on survival—if he doesn’t understand why his country is at war. As they talk, Eddie and Stink dance in the bar.
Rhallon’s perspective on Vietnam is the more realistic and accurate one. To say that the war in Vietnam is unjust means that it was fought for essentially immoral reasons—preserving America’s national pride and economic standing in competition with the USSR. O’Brien has then shown how the immorality of the war trickles down to influence the way soldiers behave. At the same time, Doc has a point, too—in such conditions, a soldier’s first order of business is often survival, not morality.
Rhallon asks Doc about his soldiers’ mission, and Doc explains that they’re traveling to Paris to hunt down Cacciato. Rhallon nods—if Cacciato is indeed a deserter, he says, then he must be punished severely, like a dog. Strangely, Lieutenant Corson, who has been listening to Rhallon and Doc’s conversation, seems to scoff at the idea that their mission is extremely important. “What difference does it make?” he asks aloud.
Lieutenant Corson seems to be getting healthier and healthier following his departure from Vietnam. At the beginning of the book he was almost dying, and seemed virtually senile. Here, he seems both energetic and strikingly realistic about the mission to recover Cacciato, as he recognizes that it will serve no real purpose. This is ironic, since it was Corson who insisted on the mission in the first place.
As the other soldiers dance and argue, Paul Berlin dances with Sarkin. Berlin overhears Doc telling Captain Rhallon “the ultimate war story”—the story of how Billy Boy Watkins died. Berlin feels sick, and tunes out Doc’s words. Sarkin points out the obvious fact Berlin is very drunk. Sarkin kisses Berlin, and tells him that Doc’s story is “silly.”
O’Brien uses a strategy similar to the one he used to describe the beheading in Tehran. He creates a sense of anticipation by describing a “pregnant absence”—we don’t know exactly what the war story in question is, but we know that it’s both horrific and important to Berlin’s career as a soldier.